Are we on the same playing field?

Tariq A. Al Maeena writes: It is unfortunate that years pass by and yet Saudis remain mired in something as unresolved as allowing women to drive

By Tariq A. Al Maeena, Special to Gulf News
00:01 June 5, 2011
Are we on the same playing field?

Speaker of the Saudi Shura Council Abdullah Al Shaikh stated on Thursday that the council was ready to discuss the issue of women driving if it was asked to. He claimed that "the issue has not so far been tabled with the council for discussion".

This issue has become the subject of wide public debate following the recent arrest and detention for 10 days of Saudi Manal Al Sharif, when she drove her car openly.

Al Shaikh, in elaborating on the process of tabling issues before the council, said that a proposal must either come from the government, or at least one member of the council or when the council itself expressed a desire to deliberate a certain issue.

Noted Saudi thinker and activist Abdullah Al Alami countered Al Shaikh's statements by saying that the council was formally asked to discuss the issue in a letter sent by express mail to the council back in February of this year. The request was endorsed by a former ambassador, a former undersecretary to the UN secretary-general, a deputy CEO of a big company in the Eastern Province and a prominent member of the National Society for Human Rights. The petition also included a sizeable number of academics, literary figures, media professionals, businessmen and women, housewives, students and government employees.

According to Al Alami, the Shura Council had set up a committee meeting with a delegation from the petitioners for March 15 of this year, but the meeting was cancelled hours prior to the event without any explanation.

"While we appreciate the council's efforts to consider the issues of society, we urge it to review the project that we have submitted to it, which contains the advantages of allowing women to drive cars and the negative effects resulting from the presence of a large number of foreign drivers socially and economically as well as from a security point of view," he said.

Understandably, Al Alami can be forgiven if he is surprised by the Shura Council speaker's statements. But then let's try to understand why the Shura Council would need outside intervention in this issue, when one of their own for many years was trying to table the issue of women driving and was continuously overruled.

Back in 2006, Shura Council member Mohammad Al Zulfi had repeatedly led calls in the consultative council for the issue to be tabled and to take action. He claimed that he was surrounded and intimidated by angry Islamists at one of the recent debates because of his opinions. In a statement to the press at the time, Al Zulfi stated, "I told them the Quran and the Sunnah do not prevent it, and not allowing women to drive creates more social problems than preventing them. The paroxysms of anger these people go into don't help the matter. They are a minority who are very loud, and they are tense now because of the open atmosphere for debate."

Were these debates not recorded? If indeed the Shura Council speaker claims that this issue has not reached the council yet, then are Al Alami and Al Zulfi and others like them blowing smoke? Or are they in the same ball-park?

Minister's support

In the same year, the then Saudi Minister of Information, Eyad Madani, encouraged women to lobby traffic departments, saying there was no formal legal ban. Speaking before an economic forum, he told the women audience to go ahead and apply for their driving licences. Such a call from a reformer and one with a seat on the Council of Ministers was seen as an encouraging signal for the Shura Council to table the motion and work on it. And yet that did not happen.

At the time, several Islamic scholars claimed that driving was a "physical activity that conflicted with women's divinely ordained role as homemakers and that freedom to drive could lead to illicit relations with men". The Interior Ministry, the body entrusted with issuing driving licences, refused to issue women drivers with the permit.

A lot of change in thinking has taken place since then. It has gradually dawned on many minds in these preceding years that religion had nothing to do with the ban. Mohammad Abdul Latif Al Shaikh, a Saudi scholar, said that the ball was now in the court of the political leadership since the issue was political rather than religious. "Islamic teachings, which did not prevent women from mounting camels and horses, would not forbid them from driving cars," he wrote, adding his astonishment as to why a decision had not been taken on the issue so far and said it was something society was more prepared to accept than ever.

It is unfortunate for half the Saudi population that years pass by, and yet we remain mired in something as unresolved as allowing women to drive, leaving me to wonder if our legislative body, the Shura Council, is on the same team and on the same field as the rest of us. 

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.